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Out of darkness

Poor African air safety played a large part in a rise in accidents last year. Can this continent ever turn its aviation safety around?

The Dark Continent was a term coined in Europe two centuries ago when Africa’s hinterland was largely unknown. Today the adjective could still be used to describe much of this massive land, but for different reasons – all of them implying impenetrability of a different kind.
Poverty, famine, internal conflict, dictatorship, bureaucracy and corruption are all words associated in many non-African peoples’ minds with many of that great continent’s countries. United Nations aid programmes and peacekeeping forces seem to be constantly there, as do major world charitable organisations, and the International Monetary Fund – the list of agencies goes on seemingly for ever. But the results often seem to disappear. Into what?
The equivalent has been true of African aviation infrastructure for about a third of the entire lifespan of aviation itself. Before that, aviation everywhere was a primitive affair. The International Civil Aviation Organisation – which is, of course, a UN agency – has, seemingly forever, been providing expertise, training and money to help Africa raise its aviation infrastructure standards. The International Air Transport Association has been doing the same for Africa’s airlines. But again, the benefits never seem to show.
There are exceptions to this. In southern Africa, partly as a result of the cross-border influence of South Africa’s high level of aviation expertise and its relatively stable economy, air traffic management (ATM) is improving and will continue to. The national carrier of conflict-ravaged Ethiopia, for reasons that are difficult to understand considering the nation’s poverty and discord, has one of the best long-term safety records in the world in its international division. If Ethiopian Airlines can still be professional under such conditions, surely others could too. South Africa is an aviation role model for Africa, but so are airlines like Ethiopian, which are good at what they do despite the incredible odds against them.
It is difficult, on the other hand, to understand why Nigeria, populous and relatively wealthy with its major oil industry and other natural assets, cannot get its aviation act together. Its safety performance last year was even worse than usual, and its infrastructure standards, particularly in air traffic control and at its busy major international airports, are a disgrace.
It is easy to say and may sound facile, but there needs to be a new, positive aviation mindset, both within Africa and among those organisations that have the will and the expertise to help. The mindset needs to be based on a real, local appreciation of the benefits that high-quality, efficient air transport can bring to national and regional economies. It has that effect in other areas of the world, so why not  Africa with its massive distances and largely unsophisticated surface infrastructure?
The mindset change can be effected by conveying to national decision makers an appreciation not of what aviation costs, in terms of infrastructure, equipment and training, but of what it can deliver given clever investment. Concentrate first on converting politicians and business leaders to the truth that the return on investment can be considerable, rather than simply focusing on sending technical experts like missionaries to teach the local people how to run an airport, airline, or air navigation service provider (ANSP). The latter has been done for years, but the people who get the training lose their motivation and eventually their skills when they find their pay is poor and the governments that own Africa’s main airports and the ANSPs do not back staff up by providing recurrent training and properly maintained equipment.
The other message is that Africa does not need to invest what Europe or America has. A little money can go a long way today, with an unprecedented choice of low-cost commercial-off-the-shelf solutions to provide quality ATM, for example, based on GPS and automatic dependent surveillance rather than expensive surface infrastructure. IATA, whose member airlines have an interest in low airport charges, can provide better guidance on low-cost, highly effective airport infrastructure than specialist airport consultants do.
Efficient aviation can help Africa become more prosperous, and the investment in higher standards need not cost mega-bucks. If Ethiopian Airlines can be safe on a shoestring, so can others.

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